243 High St Northcote, VIC 3070
Sometimes a restaurant's trappings are so many layers of distraction. At ESP, they serve to shine an ever-more focused light on the food. Yes, there's crisp service and excellent, interesting wines. Yes, you'll be cosseted in a gleaming, comfortable dining room replete with gorgeous furniture and tableware. And yes, these accoutrements are all profoundly enjoyable. What you don't get is smoke and mirrors. This is a chef's restaurant and the trappings are there to support the sublime efforts of the kitchen.
Chef Scott Pickett named the restaurant after himself but there's considerably less ego in his employment program and he's fostered and plucked great talent. Scottish chef Steve Nairn has hardcore Michelin experience in the United Kingdom and stints at Eleven Madison Park (the New York restaurant recently anointed the world's best) and Vue de monde. His produce-first, cook-it-right approach is simpatico with Pickett.
The culinary ideas aren't wild but they're highly considered and refined. Classic French technique is the bedrock, applied to Australian produce with contemporary wiles: a little fermenting here, some Japanese charcoal grilling there. The food is direct and thoughtful: you know what you're eating but you're unlikely to apprehend the work that has made these ingredients such arresting expressions of themselves.
There's no better place to marvel at this than from a seat at the counter overlooking the kitchen. Copper pans and roiling pots indicate real cooking, and the small team works calmly, minding their Ps and Qs. This is not a place ruled by water baths or shouting; it runs on toil, skill, feel and tasting, tasting, tasting.
Diners are served a seven-course menu that ends up being about a dozen small plates. Dainty snacks – peppery smoked wallaby; nasturtium leaf wrapping pickled quail egg; a raw, rich and glistening wagyu sliver brushed with bone marrow – arrive all at once. They're followed by a magnificent sweetbread and mushroom dish. There's much to it but a simple, clever trick lies at the heart: pine mushrooms are sauteed for 20 minutes with more added at various points during that period so that the resulting melange draws various flavours from the same fungus.
Prestige ingredients are used to support humble vegetables. There's the fermented truffle that sauces a bundle of grilled leaves (chicory, silverbeet, choi sum, gem lettuce).
Potatoes are garnished with salmon caviar in a terrific dish which sees lovingly sourced spuds scooped into tiny balls, then poached and sauteed in butter. Another nice, laborious detail: the roe is washed and brined so it's a tumble of clean, salty marbles.
Rockling fillet is cured, smoked in hay, pan-roasted with butter, rested, then carved into two portions. After all this, the flesh is opaque yet flaky, sweet and smoke-tinged, bright and clean. The seafood sauce starring local vermouth is fabulous too but I was floored by the outstanding execution of the fish itself.
Tasting menus can be a rollercoaster crossed with an endurance test. Not here. Portions aim towards replete, not catatonic; flavours are balanced within a dish but also link from one to the next.
Duck – riskily rich – can be a roadblock when served in a degustation but here a slice of aged breast – again, cooked perfectly – is served with a palate-awakening "granola" of seeds, fig and beetroot.
ESP is a restaurant that loves restaurants, an ode to the many arts of hospitality, not least the idea that diners shouldn't be harangued into appreciating them. A meal here rewards deep attention but it's just as valid to let it wash over you and be swept up in conversation with your companions.
It takes confidence to be this good yet this restrained. Enjoy the mature, spry ESP and that lovely "safe hands" feeling you get in the very best restaurants.
Rating: Four and a half stars (out of five)